How Project-Based Learning Helps Special Needs Students Collaborate and Connect

young student working in group

By Jill Koenemann

I’m a special needs high school teacher at Monroe ISD, which is a regional education agency in Michigan that supports nine school districts. At a PLC meeting last year, my colleagues and I started talking about how to teach 21st-century skills like collaboration, critical thinking, and problem-solving in a classroom where students have a range of abilities.

We were looking for a curriculum that would move beyond teaching the classics and would help students connect what they were learning with their own lives. The conversation quickly shifted to project-based learning (PBL). This approach suits children with learning difficulties because it allows them to work at their own levels of differentiated learning. For collaborative projects, teachers can pair higher- and lower-functioning students, who will then work together to accomplish a common goal that is often bigger or better than what they could have done on their own. And PBL can be fun: students have the opportunity to collaborate with their friends and share their final project at the end!

It’s one thing to talk about changing the way you teach, and another to actually try a new approach in the classroom. I was new to PBL, and setting up projects that would engage my students was a challenge. To be honest, I had some trouble setting up my first project, and as a result my students got impatient, regardless, I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel; rather, I was even more committed to improving on our next project.

For my second project, I included six special needs students with varying disabilities. It focused on the challenging topic of survivor’s guilt. We started by reading the short story “The Seventh Man” by Haruki Murakami, which is about a man whose best friend dies when he was 10. In the story the man tells how he dealt with survivor’s guilt and PTSD for the rest of his life. We tied this story in with an op-ed entitled “The Moral Logic of Survivor Guilt” by Nancy Sherman, as well as coverage about the Parkland school shooting and how those kids had to return to school without their friends. The goal was for the students to create a visual representation of how the stories connected and how they were different, to see how fiction and non-fiction go together.

I didn’t set out to make this project such an emotional one, but the shooting in Florida happened to coincide with us starting a unit called “Survival,” and this project brought our class together at a difficult time.

Using a visual collaboration platform called Project Pals, students structured their thinking and through collaboration tools like the built-in messenger feature, students were able to brainstorm in a collaborative space and visualize each others’ work. This prompted other ideas from their partners that they may not have come up with on their own.

In addition, they were able to share ideas electronically and build on each others’ work to create argumentative essays. Working this way also supported our pedagogical shift towards infusing technology into all of our lessons, following the SAMR Model. For this project, students gathered all of their resources and put them in the platform to produce something that was much more than a pencil-and-paper report. Not only did the platform guide me through the process, their team was generous with their time and collaborated with me to ensure this project would be an improvement from the last. While I was still a bit apprehensive, I was extremely excited to dig in with my students.

The results of our project have been nothing short of astounding.  The essays and projects submitted by my students were fantastic; I attribute this sudden increase to the power of connecting learning with real life, providing students with the opportunity to collaborate in a controlled environment as well as my shift to a PBL approach.

Best Practices for PBL

Now that that I’ve gotten through this project and another one about World War I, I’m excited to pass on what I learned from the process with three local special needs teachers so that we can begin using PBL in more SPED classrooms. Here are some of the best practices that I’ll share with them about getting started with project-based learning:

  • Go to technology conferences. Seeing what’s out there really opens your eyes.
  • Get involved with a supportive group of people. Collaborative teaching supports collaborative learning!
  • Choose a platform with strong customer support, because PBL can be daunting at first. If you’re new to PBL like I was, consider looking for a platform that will help you design your first couple of projects.
  • Visualize the process of how to structure each project before you get started.
  • Time is an issue for every teacher, use PBL to work smarter, not harder.

PBL certainly took some getting used to, but I firmly believe that it is the future of SPED education, because ALL kids need 21st-century skills to succeed in school and in life.

For more, see:

Jill Koenemann is a high school special needs teacher in Monroe ISD. Find Jill on Twitter at @jillkoen.

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Jessica Moskowitz

Jill, great post; you raise some excellent pros to project-based learning, such as its allowance for differentiation and collaboration. Research shows that it also provides other benefits to students, both those with and without special needs. For example, a study by Filippataou and Kaldi (2010) followed fourth graders with learning difficulties as they worked through a project on sea animals with their classmates. The study found that, in addition to the cooperative learning aspect that you address, these students engaged in project-based learning also benefited in the areas of motivation, engagement, social acceptance and academic performance.
Student motivation and engagement, two important and desirable things, can be hard to muster as today’s teachers compete with the pull of the many distractors of this day and age. Thus, project-based learning’s potential to recapture motivation and engagement is an exciting prospect. Of particular contribution to this potential is PBL’s hands on nature and it allowance for students to work at their own pace. Social acceptance is also important, as it creates a positive school experience for all students; it also works in favor of the previously mentioned factors of motivation and engagement. PBL helps create this social acceptance by facilitating positive social interaction between peers as they work together towards the completion of the project.
In terms of academic performance, not only do students experience gains (as the aforementioned study proposes), but studies such as Geier et al (2008) suggest that these gains as a result of project-based learning are even above those experienced as a result of direct instruction. Particularly in the case of special needs students, this can be attributed to the fact that, as suggested by Thomas (2000), the various features of project-based learning make it more adaptable to the various learning styles of students.
Props to you for taking the leap into project-based learning. I hope you come to see some of the benefits listed above in your own classroom!

Filippatou, D., & Kaldi, S. (2010). The effectiveness of project-based learning on pupils with learning difficulties regarding academic performance, group work and motivation. International Journal of Special Education,25(1), 17-26.
Geier, R., Blumenfeld, P. C., Marx, R. W., Krajcik, J. S., Fishman, B., Soloway, E., & Clay-Chambers, J. (2008). Standardized test outcomes for students engaged in inquiry-based science curricula in the context of urban reform. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 45(8), 922-939.
Thomas, J. W. (2000). A review of Research on Project-Based Learning, Ph.D. thesis, San Rafael, California, USA, available at

Michael McWilliams

Hi Jill! I really love everything you have to say here. It's very honorable to be pushing for new and innovative strategies in this field, and I think that PBL is a wonderful step in the right direction. An interesting aspect of your design that I find particularly great is how you are mixing together students of varying levels of functioning. A study from 2011 done by Sitembiso Ncube looked at the effects of peer-collaboration and how those effects could be maximized. They found a lot of benefits to mixed-ability groups over homogeneously grouped students. Namely that higher functioning or achieving students are able to tutor and lift up students who are having more difficulty, which greatly helps the lower achieving students. At the same time, the higher level students are spending their time teaching and helping which is well documented in research to be a very effective way to both strengthen and find any flaws in their own understanding.
Along with these positives of the mixed-group, there are several negatives to other types of groups that you avoid. According to Lisa Emerson from the William and Mary School of Education there are some negatives to other sorts of groups, namely student-selected groups, and homogenous groups. In student-selected groups you run the risk unbalanced groups, leading to certain students getting more out of an experience, as well as the risk of students picking groups with friends and getting off task frequently. And in homogenous groups you run the risk of students in the lower achieving groups having negative impact on their academic confidence, which would only lead to further issues. Along with this would be the embarrassment and discomfort that could come from being placed in a worse group. There are of course some negatives to mixed groups such as having to rank the students taking more time to get things planned, but they seem worth while all things considered.
Again, thanks for a wonderful post, and I hope things continue to go great for you and your students moving forward.

Kagan, S., & Kagan, M. (2009). Kagan cooperative learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing.
Ncube, S. (2011). Peer-collaboration: An effective teaching strategy for inclusive classrooms. The Journal of International Association of Special Education,12(1), 79-81.
Emerson, L. M., M.Ed. (n.d.). School of EducationTraining & Technical Assistance Center. Retrieved from

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